Herbicide Use Conserves Water, Tripling Sorghum Yields

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Sorghum Yield: Bushland, Texas

Sorghum is grown primarily in Great Plains states where it is used as a livestock feed. Early grain sorghum production generally involved clean tillage for weed control which eliminated most surface residues. When retained on the surface, crop residues increase soil water storage which increase crop yield. A USDA-ARS laboratory was established in Texas in 1938 and numerous tests have been conducted on ways of increasing sorghum yield in the very dry Texas climate. When herbicides became available and tillage was no longer required for weed control, more residues remained on the soil surface, more water was conserved and sorghum yields increased dramatically.

“In early dryland studies at the USDA laboratories in Bushland, Texas, USA, most residues were plowed under. Residue management for sorghum production received a major boost when improved herbicides and planting equipment became available in the 1960s. Retaining crop residues on the soil surface with no-tillage and improved herbicidal weed control are largely responsible for the increased water conservation achieved since the early 1970s. For 37 studies at the laboratory, preliminary analysis revealed that dryland sorghum grain yields more than tripled from 1939 to 1997. A major increase occurred in the early 1970s when using no-tillage became common. From 1939-1970, mean yield exceeded 2000 kg ha-1 only six times, but exceeded that amount 20 times after 1970.

Soil water content at planting was the dominant factor contributing to yield increases with time. Most increases in soil water content at planting occurred after the early 1970s, when improved herbicides became available and using conservation tillage (crop residue retention on the soil surface) received major emphasis at the laboratory.”

Authors: Unger, P. W., and R. L. Baumhardt.
Affiliation: USDA-ARS.
Title: Crop residue management increases dryland grain sorghum yields in a semiarid region.
Source: Sustaining the Global Farm. Selected Papers from the 10th International Soil Conservation Meeting held May 24-29, 1999. Pgs: 277-282.

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